Joseph Carroll
Evolution and Literary Theory
University of Missouri Press, 1995, 528 pages

Author's presentation

This book has two main purposes, one constructive, the other polemical. The constructive purpose is to fashion a theory of literature by integrating evolutionary theory with usable components of traditional literary theory. The polemical purpose is to use the literary theory thus fashioned as a framework within which to analyze and repudiate the poststructuralist theories that currently dominate literary studies. By poststructuralism I mean the whole array of schools and methodologies that have clustered around two central concepts: that words make the world, and that all meaning is self-contradictory. Proponents of these concepts include people like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Fredric Jameson. Since this kind of theory is now seeping over into the social sciences, the polemical critique might be of some interest even to those who are not particularly concerned with the problems of literature.

The book is meant to be comprehensive in scope. I take in the whole history of literary theory, from Plato to the present, but I concentrate heavily on the literary theory of the past 250 years or so. I cite and comment on most of the prominent figures in contemporary literary theory, and also on many of those who are less prominent but who are representative in some way. I talk a good deal about Darwin, Huxley, and the position of evolutionary theory within the history of modern thought. And I cite and comment on contemporary evolutionary theorists from a variety of disciplines. To illustrate my theoretical principles, I discuss dozens of literary texts from different periods and national literatures. Some of the commentaries on literary texts expand into longer passages of interpretive criticism. The most substantial interpretive passages are devoted to Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and to works by George Eliot, Henry James, Walter Pater, Joseph Conrad, and Wallace Stevens. Hamlet, Wuthering Heights, and other widely familiar literary works offer recurrent points of reference.

The book has large pages and small print, so to read all of its 500 some odd pages would constitute for most readers an excessive investment of time. (My own experience is that to read the book straight through requires about 45 hours.) Accordingly, I have tried to set the book up in such a way that it can be read piecemeal, according to the varying interests of specific readers. Each chapter is broken down into titled sections, and I have provided an extensive index that has subheadings for most topical and thematic categories.

What follows here is a guide to selective reading:

 The book is broken into two main parts. The first part, chapters 1-8, is devoted primarily to the continuous development and application of a theory of literature. The second part, chapters 9-12, consists of a sequence of critical essays on specific theorists.

To get the main argument against poststructuralism, one should read the first section of the introduction ("Doctrinal Orientation") and all of chapter one ("Poststructuralism, Traditional Criticism, and Evolutionary Theory").

The relation between literature, criticism, and science constitutes the main topic of chapter two ("Literature as a Form of Knowledge").

To get the heart of the literary theory, particularly in its relation to evolutionary psychology, one should read the first section of the introduction ("Doctrinal Orientation") and all of chapter three ("The Elementary Principles of Literary Figuration"). Commentary on the history of literary theory is concentrated in chapter one, sections three and four ("The Historical Position of a Darwinian Critical Paradigm," and "Historicism Old and New"), chapter three ("The Elementary Principles of Literary Figuration"), chapter four ("A Model of Literary Development"), and chapter five ("A Model of Possible Thematic Models").

Commentary on the historical position and philosophical character of Darwinian thought is concentrated in chapter one, section three ("The Historical Position of a Darwinian Critical Paradigm"), chapter seven ("The Thematic Structure of the Darwinian Paradigm," especially section two, "The Metaphysical Structure of Darwinian Thought,") and chapter nine ("Sex and Disinterested Social Sentiment").

Anyone particularly interested in feminism or issues of sexual identity could consult chapter six ("The Sexual Dyad") and chapter nine ("Sex and Disinterested Social Sentiment").

The second part of the book contains titled chapter sections devoted specifically to Darwin, Donald Symons, Northrop Frye, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, John Bowlby, and (in smaller compass) to Richard Lewontin, Richard Rorty, and Thomas Kuhn. The first six of these writers are paired off in three separate chapters. Darwin and Symons are compared on sex differences. Frye and Derrida are presented as offering positive and negative versions of an archetypal teleology rendered obsolete by Darwin. And Bowlby's evolutionary revision of Freudian theories of child development is set in contrast to Foucault's argument that Marx and Freud constitute a form of rhetorical practice that transcends empirical revision. (The sequence from Frye to Derrida to Foucault also has a historical rationale. It takes in the main developments in literary theory over the past four decades or so.) In the final chapter, "Biologistic Affiliates of Poststructuralism," Lewontin, Rorty, and Kuhn are grouped together as writers who misuse evolutionary theory to support irrationalist epistemologies.

The book has substantial passages on Marxist and Freudian literary criticism. These passages are dispersed at various points in the book and are not identified by titled sections, but they can easily be located through the analytical index.

The references section contains 544 items. Literary works that are discussed but not quoted are included in the index but not the references section.


Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles